Palestinian Manal Shqair says her activist journey began at birth when her father refused to name her because she was a girl.
“He was shocked,” she said. “He wasn’t expecting to have a girl. He was expecting to have a boy. He even put the blame on my mom that there’s something wrong with her body that she gives birth to girls but not to boys. He got outraged when I arrived in this world, and he refused to name me.”
It was a denial of her existence that Manal, now 28, likens to the treatment of Palestinians by the Israeli occupation.
“I am Palestinian, I am denied existence just because of who I am,” she said in an interview. “And I’m always fighting every day for my existence as a woman in front of my dad in a patriarchal setting and as a Palestinian in front of the Israeli occupation.”
Manal is campaigns coordinator for Stop the Wall, a grassroots organization set up in 2002 when Israel began building a wall – also known as the apartheid wall – that annexes Palestinian land and property and restricts movement in the occupied West Bank.
Ordered halted by the International Court of Justice in 2004, the wall is about 700 km long and eight metres high in some places. Stop the Wall calls for the dismantling of the wall and resistance against everything associated with it, such as Israeli settlements and other actions aimed at forcing Palestinians from their land or homes.
Based in Ramallah, part of her work is documenting human rights violations, such as those experienced by Bedouin communities in the Jordan Valley.
“The Bedouin communities who live there encounter Israeli ethnic cleansing through demolition,” Manal said. “They are denied access to water, denied the right to build homes. So, they live in residential tents that are also demolished.”
She told of the Bedouin community of Khirbet Humsa al-Fawqa that was denied connection to the water network that is built by Israel. “So, the people started smuggling water. Can you imagine? When they refused to be forcibly expelled, Israel confiscated their water tanks and tractors.
“After the Israeli occupation confiscated all of their tents and all of their water and left them for two days without water, food and clothes, they were forced to move but refused to leave the Jordan Valley.”
Manal works on building solidarity with groups around the world.
“Any act of solidarity, even a small one, is something that I share with grassroots activists on the ground, and they share it with their smaller communities in order to strengthen their ‘sumud’ or steadfastness,” she said.
Part of her work is to strengthen steadfastness with material and moral support. “Sumud is a culture, a way of life …to never let the Israeli occupation disrupt our days. It’s going to university, finishing my degrees, despite the checkpoints. It’s about passing by Israel’s apartheid wall and imagining that this wall is dismantled. It is seeing someone’s home demolished and rebuilding that home.”
Manal considers herself a powerful woman. For years she felt inferior and hated the name her father eventually gave her because he chose it without consulting her mother, she said. “Now I love my name. In Arabic ‘Manal’ means the aspirations that we have succeeded in fulfilling. It’s our fulfilled dreams, our desires, our wishes.”
What is the difficult part of your work?
The difficult part of my work is when I first visit communities, like the Bedouin communities in the Jordan Valley, it is hard to get their trust.
First, they feel their struggle has been reduced to objects, they’ve been analyzed and researched so much. Second, these are conservative communities. They see me as a woman with more privileges. And the old men don’t take me seriously because I am a young woman.
I have a male accompany me when I go to a community for the first time. When they get to know me and what I do, I no longer need a male to convince them to speak with me.
What’s an unforgettable story from your work?
Something I will never forget is the story of Selma. I met her in 2020 when I was researching women and education. She is a survivor of GBV (gender-based violence). She lives in the Jordan Valley, a fertile area in the occupied West Bank. It’s been subject for decades to Israeli de facto annexation.
Selma was 24. She started talking about her experience. With eyes full of tears, she told me ‘I wish I could get an education.’ She had finished grade six but the school was too far from where she lived. It was a precarious journey subject to the attacks of Israeli military and settlers.
When she was a teen, her father forced her to marry a man she didn’t know. That man used to beat her a lot until she decided to get divorced. I’ll never forget how sad she felt when she talked about her desire to get education and be an independent and strong woman, never subject to violence by men.
What is satisfying about your work?
It is hope. What I try to convince others of in Palestine: hope. When I connect people abroad with people on the ground here, I personally get an extra dose of hope to continue the work I’m doing, to continue living steadfastly in Palestine and never ever to think of leaving my country no matter what the situation is.
I lived a year in Scotland to do my master’s degree. I loved that experience. I’ll never forget it. It was a turning point in my life. At the same time, I felt that my life was less meaningful than when I’m in Palestine. I feel that by existing in Palestine, by grappling with the Israeli occupation apparatus of violence, of colonialism and of apartheid, I have more meaning in my life – it’s struggling to make justice triumph and thrive.
I believe that freedom is a state of being, it doesn’t necessarily need to be a place. If I want to see Palestine as a place, it’s an open-air prison surrounded by the apartheid wall and Jewish-only bypass roads, settlements, and checkpoints, but I don’t feel like this because I believe freedom is a state of being. That’s something that the work I do reinforces and strengthens a lot.
What is some unforgettable advice you’ve received?
My mom used to tell me every day when I go to school ‘Remember that your education is your weapon through which you’re going to fight everything that stands between you and your goals in life.’
What do you do to relax and have fun?
I usually go hiking. Usually, I have good company when I go hiking and I meet new people and hear new experiences. I also get to know my country more, especially because Israel is trying to change the landscape, to change even the names of certain areas.
When I go hiking, I learn the Indigenous names of places and locations and get a sense of continuity between past and the present. When I walk in a certain area, I feel I am loyal to my ancestors who used to walk there by still preserving Palestinian existence physically and spiritually in the areas that they used to live.
Israel tries to deny and to cut that continuity between the current generation and the past Palestinian generation as part of their obliteration of our existence.
Manal Shqair and Ilaf Nasreldin are featured guests in the podcast series When Feminists Rule the Word – Season Three: Let’s Talk About Power.
The Power of a Shared Dream.
Host Martha Chaves says “Wow!” frequently in episode five. That’s her reaction to the stirring answers from Manal Shqair and Ilaf Nasreldin when they are asked to imagine what a feminist utopian world would look like.
Manal is a Palestinian whose utopia is liberation from Israeli occupation. Ilaf is Sudanese and her utopia is freedom from the strict restraints on women that begin at home.
“I will go to work without bothering to wait at one of Israel’s 593 military checkpoints and roadblocks, where I always wait sometimes for hours with Israeli soldiers staring at my body in a disturbing way and holding their guns with their fingers on them, ready to shoot me,” says Manal.
“For starters I will feel safe,” says Ilaf. She imagines waking up and deciding what to wear, where to go, and what to do without fearing reprisals or harassment because she is a woman.
If there’s a common thread in the idea of a feminist utopia, perhaps it is dignity – something, as Ilaf says, that everyone deserves.
Between November 25 and December 10th Nobel Women’s Initiative will be showcasing the work of young feminist leaders and women human rights defenders from around the world during the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, sharing the torch of their experiences, insight, and advice. To read the profiles of the other activists featured in this year’s campaign click here.